By Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Culinary Editor & Community Director of Content
Two emerging trends related to meat are progressively capturing consumer attention: sustainability and humane practices related to raising animals, and the reemergence of artisan butchery. These interconnected concerns fit into a greater mounting megatrend of consumer food nostalgia, a longing for a return to the perceived clean-label agricultural and post-slaughter practices more familiar to our forefathers—but clearly updated via today’s culinary acumen.
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High-end chefs are almost invariably the initial drivers of culinary trends, and the ongoing interest in sustainably raised animals is no exception. What started with menuing Berkshire pork has continued with wider attention to Duroc, Red Wattle and other heritage breeds. And this last year saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of heritage turkeys like Standard Bronze and Narragansett around Thanksgiving. Heritage Foods USA, New York, which works with small Midwestern farms that specialize in raising heritage beef, pork, poultry and lamb, notes that sales of heritage turkeys were up 82% in 2011 over the previous year.
Sustainably raised meats or poultry, whether involving cows, pigs, sheep or poultry, often entails raising the animals within an “ethical” environment free from use of antibiotics and growth hormones, with the latter only applicable to beef and lamb; USDA does not permit hormone use with poultry or pork. Antibiotics were traditionally administered to cattle for both therapeutic and sub-therapeutic reasons, the latter referencing persistent, ongoing use to help prevent the spread of disease in suboptimal conditions. However, to address issues related to antibiotic resistance, FDA is now requiring prescriptions for any antibiotic treatments for livestock (see Final Guidance for Industry No. 209, “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals,” for complete details). If a livestock producer is raising animals for customers seeking a “no antibiotics” claim, once treated with prescribed, therapeutic antibiotics, that animal is no longer eligible and instead sold to the open market, with the animal only being eligible for slaughter after the FDA-required waiting period. Chefs and butchers often call out the names of farms in descriptions to foster an air of transparency.
These products generally fall under an umbrella of “boutique meats,” and now goat has been added to the mix. Goat, one of the most widely consumed meats in the world, is often seen as an environmentally friendly choice compared to beef due to goats’ amenability to different types of pasture land—they’re not as finicky as cattle, and can digest a wide range of forage. Bill Niman, founder of natural-meat pioneer Niman Ranch but now working independently (he split with the company back in 2007), has been ramping up sustainable goat production over the last few years. USDA notes that goat slaughter figures have doubled every 10 years over the last three decades (over 625% growth from 1984 to today, based on federal inspection data). Whole Foods now carries goat at several of its stores across the country and is continually adding it to other units.